Well, Are You a Saint or A Sinner?

The Jubilee Year of Mercy comes to an end this month. We have been given the opportunity to consider how we benefit from Christ’s Mercy and were encouraged to step through the Holy Door to begin our journey back to Christ.
At this point it is worth looking back to assess what the Jubilee Year meant for us. The Holy Father instituted this Holy Year as a means of taking the Church forward. How far have I come? It is easy to fall back into the “Done that – move on” mind set. That would be a big mistake in the case of the Year of Mercy.

I’ve learned that Jesus knows me better than I know myself and despite of those aspects of me that I try to hide He loves me. His mercy is limitless and we are encouraged to imitate Him in this. When I’ve considered being merciful to others I’ve really only thought about people I know. The things I might be called to be merciful about are trivial. I haven’t thought about being merciful to really horrible people.

Like most people I don’t come into contact with horrible people. Recently, though, I was made to consider those we might regard as horrible. I was attending the Conference of the Church’s Safeguarding service. Those charged with putting the Church’s Safeguarding policies into practice in our parishes gathered at The Scottish Police College in Tulliallan.

The Safeguarding policies are designed to protect vulnerable adults and children from abuse and are a response to the scandals that have rocked the Church in recent years. The main speaker at the conference was Martin Henry from “Stop it Now”, a body whose purpose is to deal with sex abusers at an early stage.

Now don’t turn the page now. This is not a pleasant subject and many of you might be revolted by the very mention of it. I know how you feel. Bear with me. Martin’s major point was that society is intent in finding and punishing sex offenders. Nobody would argue with that. Martin, however, pointed out that the damage has been done by that time. A more sensible approach would be to intervene at an earlier point to stop the abuse happening.

One tactic of his group is to work with offenders who have been caught downloading nasty images of children. The aim is to work with the offender to help them avoid progressing to abusing children. They work with the offender to change how they think and to help them deal with these problem urges.

It struck me that this view of the offender as a person who needs to be helped rather than a monster who should be punished is a prime example of mercy at work. It is worth remembering that Jesus died on the cross to save sinners. The greater the sinner the greater the mercy. If Jesus regards even those who would harm a child as redeemable who am I to think of them as monsters?

There are people who should be locked up. Incarceration can serve as a punishment and can remove a threat from our midst. However, the “Lock them up and throw away the key” attitude is not an acceptable course of action. It is usually expressed in anger and we don’t always make good decisions in anger. Despite their crimes, or because of their crimes, we should be trying to redeem them. That’s the role of the Church; bring sinners to Christ.

I need to examine my motives for regarding these offenders as monsters. Perhaps it’s a case of their great sins putting my sins in the shade. I might not always live up to the Christian principles I profess, but, hey, these people are much worse. That might salve my conscience but it doesn’t help to make me a better person. Could I see that I have something in common with the monster? We are both sinners and I am not the judge of either of us. It is easy to fall into the trap of wanting to punish rather than save.

I feel that I’ve come to the end of the Year of Mercy and I still have not grasped its full meaning. The message is change. I need to change my outlook. Rather than needing to condemn those who are caught in crime I should be looking to ways of reforming them. But how can I do that?

Surely, though, I will not be judged on whether I can succeed in turning people away from crime, turning them away from sin? I may be judged on whether I can change my attitude. The Holy Father, addressing the Wednesday audience the other week said that we will be judged on how merciful we are. That rang a bell with me. When we say the Our Father we ask God to forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. The part in italics is the important part. We are asking God to treat us as we treat others. We expect infinite mercy from God but in this prayer we are asking for much less.

We all hope to get to Heaven, not immediately but all in good time. Have you ever thought what Heaven might be like? I have no idea what Heaven is like. I did think about what I would expect. I hope that if I get to Heaven my friends and family will be there too. Would Heaven be Heaven if someone I love is missing? None of my friends and family is perfect (except my wife, of course). I hope that God will overlook any faults in His mercy.

It does seem to me that I have a lot of work to do on being merciful. Finally at the end of the Year of Mercy I can now see the way ahead. As I watch the news I see people being bombed without mercy. I see people being subjected to violence without mercy and refugees being rejected without mercy. Even political debate has lost any sense of mercy. I read that a councillor in England wanted those who oppose Brexit to be charged with treason.

Perhaps by example we could spread a more merciful attitude throughout our country and the world. It will not be easy. It is much easier to help old ladies across the road than to be merciful to those we dislike. Remembering the Holy Father’s words we must persevere to be merciful and not just for this Holy Year. A change is expected of us.

How am I going to keep this process of change going. It could be like a New Year’s resolution that we make and keep it for a week or so, then it is abandoned. I’ve thought about this and the only strategy I can think of is to remember every time I recite the Our Father that I am asking God to judge me by how merciful I am. I think that might just frighten me into constant alertness.

The Price of Mercy – Full Text

The price of mercy

In this series on Mercy I have quoted from the Holy Father and from the Gospel. This month I’d like to consider a quote from Shakespeare. Now you might think that Shakespeare is not an appropriate source for a quote. He was neither a Pope nor a noted Catholic writer. There is, however evidence that he was a secret Catholic and he is a world famous writer.

In his play, The Merchant of Venice, his character, Portia is pleading for the life of Antonio with the following words;

The quality of mercy is not strain’d,
It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath: it is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:

Now I was never the greatest Shakespeare scholar but that quote has stuck in my head for over fifty years. I can agree with some of the sentiments it contains but I disagree on one important aspect. The quote seems to suggest that mercy is free, dropping from Heaven. Now it is true that God’s mercy that brings us to salvation comes from Heaven but it is certainly not free. Jesus paid a heavy price to save us.

It is worth considering if mercy is ever free. The recent case of Fr. Hamel, the priest who was murdered while celebrating Mass in his parish in France poses a question for us. How are we to respond to the threat of such violence against Catholic priests and parishioners? Do we need to step up security in our churches? Will priests require someone riding shotgun at the Mass?

What is the Christian response? Perhaps we should look at the incident in France more closely. It was reported that Fr. Hamel said “Go away Satan” to his attacker. I find this very significant; it’s not what would spring to my mind in that situation. Why did he say that? What did he mean? My first thought was that he was referring to ISIS as the work of the Devil.

These attackers bring death to those whose religious beliefs differ from their own, even among Muslim believers. Christians see God as the giver of life, the great gift we all have from God. Only God can take back that gift. We see the Devil as bringer of death. For ISIS to boast about bringing death to other believers could be seen as being associated with the Devil. It could be then that Fr. Hamel was referring to his attackers as Satan. There may be another explanation however.

His short sentence, “Go away Satan.” Reminds me of the words of Jesus when he was tempted by the Devil in the desert. He said, “Get thee behind me Satan.” Was that in Fr. Hamel’s mind when he was attacked? Surely he was being attacked, not tempted. I would have given a more violent response in his situation. Is that where the clue lies? Did Fr. Hamel see past the immediate danger to his life and recognise another danger? If his response had been one of hate of his attacker than that would be contrary to his priestly life of preaching God’s love. Fr. Hamel perceived the attack as Satan’s attack on his faith.

Fr. Hamel’s response has highlighted the greatest danger that such attacks present. The natural response to violence is violence. Christ’s teaching and example refutes that. His response to violence was love. As Christians we too must resist the pressure to resort to violence. Jesus teaches us to love our neighbour – even when that neighbour is an enemy. If we abandon that then we are abandoning the core of Christ’s teaching and Satan is the winner.

What does that mean for us? Should we defend ourselves against attack or should we turn the other cheek and be killed? I don’t think it’s as simple as that. Followers in the early Church faced oppression and death for the sake of their faith. The Faith not only survived but grew and flourished. The Faith grew because it teaches values that make sense. In our western culture today those values seem out of place.

Human life is not valued as can be seen in modern attitudes to abortion and euthanasia. Human slavery still exists – even in our own country. A society which values money more than human life has a poor future. The biggest flaw in today’s society is the failure to value truth.

Truth is the basic value in any society. In a court of law we must promise on oath to tell the truth because we can never reach a correct conclusion based on lies. The recent referendum threw up many examples of people telling lies to persuade voters in one direction or other. Unfortunately there was no independent authority who could remove the lies from the debate. Now that we have a decision many people still know if we have done the right thing. People who told the lies, then admitted it have either walked away or are running the country. Truth still seems to be an outlaw.

As Christians we must be willing to tell the truth and be willing to pay the price for that. We must act with mercy towards our enemies and pay the price for that. It is interesting to remember that when Christ was crucified he prayed, “Father forgive them” for those who had lied, accused him falsely and killed him. As these acts of terror come closer to home will we be able to demonstrate the strength of faith that so many in Syria have shown by dying rather than convert?

So what should our response be if we are attacked? We can and should defend ourselves but proportionately. We must act out of love not hate. We can’t just bomb the Middle East out of existence as one American politician apparently suggested. And if you do die for your Faith; what then? Perhaps the many young people whose view of Christianity has been distorted by an untruthful society will see some value in love and mercy and return to Jesus.


Joseph McGrath

Mercy Works – Full text

Pope Francis

Pope Francis


Last month I wrote about my pilgrimage to Rome and Assisi. I recounted the experiences of passing through the Holy Door in various basilicas. So where do I go now? I’ve gone into those great churches, prayed and gone to confession, is that it? Can I now say, “I’ve done the Holy Year of Mercy!” and move on? Somehow I don’t think so.

I’ve turned back to Pope Francis himself for advice on the direction to take. On the cover of his book, “The name of God is Mercy” there is a quote.

“The Church is not in the world to condemn, but to make possible an encounter with the visceral love that is God’s mercy. For this to occur we must go out. Go out from the churches and the parishes, go out to find people where they suffer, where they hope.”

It might seem a bit strange at first that the Pope tells us to get out of the churches after years of trying to get people into church. Look again at what he said; Go out FROM the churches. We are not being encouraged to leave the churches but to take the gospel from the church out to the world.

That raises the question, how are we to take the Gospel into the world? Should we be shouting through a megaphone or handing out leaflets on the streets? Pope Francis in his book examines the Seven Corporal Works of Mercy and asks us to examine how we can use these.

Let’s take a look at these and see if they give us a way of promoting Gospel values in today’s world. First we have to feed the hungry. We all know that millions of people are going without enough food and that even in this modern age people are dying of starvation. We have long known of those who are starving as a result of famine in Africa and beyond. The rise of foodbanks in our own country shows that there are many families who are going hungry in the midst of plenty here today.

The second work is to give drink to the thirsty. We all know that water is essential for life. Here in Scotland we take drinkable water for granted. A few years ago I visited some small islands in the seas around the Philippines. On one island I was talking to the mothers of the schoolchildren who were in our feeding program. They told me that only one of the fifteen villages on the island had a water supply. They had to take their big plastic cans on their canoe and paddle round the island to fill the can. Then they had to paddle back again. When I told them that houses in Scotland have a tap to give drinking water at any time of the day they were astonished. There are lots of people out there who need our help to get clean water.

We also have to clothe the naked. There are not so many naked people wandering around Scotland (you would never last a winter) but there are many who need fresh clothes. They may be homeless or they might be finding it hard to manage. There are charities around who can help people out with clothes donated by people like you. You wouldn’t believe how many children in Africa sport football tops from a whole range of British teams. When these clothes come via Mary’s Meals the message is not lost on the recipients.

The fourth corporal work of mercy is to shelter the traveller. How would that work in practice? In a small community the traveller would be obvious, standing out from the familiar faces. In a big city it is not so easy to recognise the traveller as everyone seems to be on the move. How does this work fit into our modern lives? One of the big issues today is that of the refugees flooding into Europe from Africa, Asia and the Middle East. The numbers of refugees, their dramatic means of getting into Europe and the underlying threat of terrorist action has put most of Europe in a state of unease to say the least.

Nevertheless we are impelled to help those in danger, even if they may have put themselves into that danger. Migrants in leaky boats are being plucked from the sea. Hungry, cold refugees are given shelter and food in Italy and Greece. What is our response to this? Are we petitioning our government to do more to help or are we demanding that they stop the flow of refugees? This is not a simple question but nobody told you that living a Christian life was going to be easy. We may not agree with accepting refugees but we have a Christian duty to help those in peril.

The fifth Corporal Work of Mercy is to comfort the sick. I’m sure most of us have gone to see someone who is ill at home or is experiencing a stay in hospital. Apart from bringing a bunch of grapes and a couple of magazines we bring something of the outside world into their sick quarters. We become a link with what’s going on outside and help them to feel they are still part of it.

Some Eucharistic Ministers regularly visit the sick and bring them communion, linking them in that mystical and poorly understood way with the rest of the Church through Christ. Theirs is a special ministry we are not all involved in. We can all be involved in helping the sick in the mission countries by our charitable donations to the missions.

The sixth work of mercy is to visit the imprisoned. This is not something that most of us would relish the opportunity to take on. Who wants to make their way to some remote spot to visit a criminal? Why would anyone want to comfort someone convicted of some heinous crime? I have only ever visited two prisons. I visited Shotts prison when researching an article for this paper. I was visiting the chaplains and had the opportunity to talk to some of the prisoners there. These were all young men who found themselves serving long sentences for crimes they had probably not given much thought to before committing them. They all seemed to be pleasant young men who had made a series of big mistakes.

The other prison I visited was in Nigeria in the company of the local priest who went there to celebrate mass. If I tell you that the first prisoner I saw was a naked man staked out on a concrete slab in the boiling sun you will understand that this was no “cushy number”. The young men I joined for mass were likeable fellows who were grateful for my company. There was not a hardened criminal among them. There was one older man who was well dressed. He had shot his nephew in cold blood and showed no remorse. He is the only real criminal I have ever met.

If prisons are to be successful in correcting the behaviour of the inmates perhaps more of us need to be visiting the poor souls locked in there.

The last work of mercy is to bury the dead. I have been to more funerals than I would like. I think there is something special about a funeral mass with a congregation praying for the repose of the soul of the deceased. Perhaps it’s the presence of Christ in the Eucharist that makes me feel that this is a service that offers great hope rather than a final laying to rest. Don’t be put off attending funerals; you are joining in spirit with someone who is in the presence of Christ.

I hope I have given you plenty to think about. I’ve certainly begun to take a closer look at myself in the process.